Zeal for the Lord

1 After the plague, the Lord said to Moses and to Eleazar the son of Aaron, the priest, “Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, from twenty years old and upward, by their fathers’ houses, all in Israel who are able to go to war.” And Moses and Eleazar the priest spoke with them in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying, “Take a census of the people, from twenty years old and upward,” as the Lord commanded Moses. The people of Israel who came out of the land of Egypt were:

Reuben, the firstborn of Israel; the sons of Reuben: of Hanoch, the clan of the Hanochites; of Pallu, the clan of the Palluites; of Hezron, the clan of the Hezronites; of Carmi, the clan of the Carmites. These are the clans of the Reubenites, and those listed were 43,730. And the sons of Pallu: Eliab. The sons of Eliab: Nemuel, Dathan, and Abiram. These are the Dathan and Abiram, chosen from the congregation, who contended against Moses and Aaron in the company of Korah, when they contended against the Lord 10 and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up together with Korah, when that company died, when the fire devoured 250 men, and they became a warning. 11 But the sons of Korah did not die.

12 The sons of Simeon according to their clans: of Nemuel, the clan of the Nemuelites; of Jamin, the clan of the Jaminites; of Jachin, the clan of the Jachinites; 13 of Zerah, the clan of the Zerahites; of Shaul, the clan of the Shaulites. 14 These are the clans of the Simeonites, 22,200.

15 The sons of Gad according to their clans: of Zephon, the clan of the Zephonites; of Haggi, the clan of the Haggites; of Shuni, the clan of the Shunites; 16 of Ozni, the clan of the Oznites; of Eri, the clan of the Erites; 17 of Arod, the clan of the Arodites; of Areli, the clan of the Arelites. 18 These are the clans of the sons of Gad as they were listed, 40,500.

19 The sons of Judah were Er and Onan; and Er and Onan died in the land of Canaan. 20 And the sons of Judah according to their clans were: of Shelah, the clan of the Shelanites; of Perez, the clan of the Perezites; of Zerah, the clan of the Zerahites. 21 And the sons of Perez were: of Hezron, the clan of the Hezronites; of Hamul, the clan of the Hamulites. 22 These are the clans of Judah as they were listed, 76,500.

23 The sons of Issachar according to their clans: of Tola, the clan of the Tolaites; of Puvah, the sclan of the Punites; 24 of Jashub, the clan of the Jashubites; of Shimron, the clan of the Shimronites. 25 These are the clans of Issachar as they were listed, 64,300.

26 The sons of Zebulun, according to their clans: of Sered, the clan of the Seredites; of Elon, the clan of the Elonites; of Jahleel, the clan of the Jahleelites. 27 These are the clans of the Zebulunites as they were listed, 60,500.

28 The sons of Joseph according to their clans: Manasseh and Ephraim. 29 The sons of Manasseh: of Machir, the clan of the Machirites; and Machir was the father of Gilead; of Gilead, the clan of the Gileadites. 30 These are the sons of Gilead: of Iezer, the clan of the Iezerites; of Helek, the clan of the Helekites; 31 and of Asriel, the clan of the Asrielites; and of Shechem, the clan of the Shechemites; 32 and of Shemida, the clan of the Shemidaites; and of Hepher, the clan of the Hepherites. 33 Now Zelophehad the son of Hepher had no sons, but daughters. And the names of the daughters of Zelophehad were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. 34 These are the clans of Manasseh, and those listed were 52,700.

35 These are the sons of Ephraim according to their clans: of Shuthelah, the clan of the Shuthelahites; of Becher, the clan of the Becherites; of Tahan, the clan of the Tahanites. 36 And these are the sons of Shuthelah: of Eran, the clan of the Eranites. 37 These are the clans of the sons of Ephraim as they were listed, 32,500. These are the sons of Joseph according to their clans.

38 The sons of Benjamin according to their clans: of Bela, the clan of the Belaites; of Ashbel, the clan of the Ashbelites; of Ahiram, the clan of the Ahiramites; 39 of Shephupham, the clan of the Shuphamites; of Hupham, the clan of the Huphamites. 40 And the sons of Bela were Ard and Naaman: of Ard, the clan of the Ardites; of Naaman, the clan of the Naamites. 41 These are the sons of Benjamin according to their clans, and those listed were 45,600.

42 These are the sons of Dan according to their clans: of Shuham, the clan of the Shuhamites. These are the clans of Dan according to their clans. 43 All the clans of the Shuhamites, as they were listed, were 64,400.

44 The sons of Asher according to their clans: of Imnah, the clan of the Imnites; of Ishvi, the clan of the Ishvites; of Beriah, the clan of the Beriites. 45 Of the sons of Beriah: of Heber, the clan of the Heberites; of Malchiel, the clan of the Malchielites. 46 And the name of the daughter of Asher was Serah. 47 These are the clans of the sons of Asher as they were listed, 53,400.

48 The sons of Naphtali according to their clans: of Jahzeel, the clan of the Jahzeelites; of Guni, the clan of the Gunites; 49 of Jezer, the clan of the Jezerites; of Shillem, the clan of the Shillemites. 50 These are the clans of Naphtali according to their clans, and those listed were 45,400.

51 This was the list of the people of Israel, 601,730. Numbers 26:1-51 ESV

Chapter 25 of the book of Numbers contains a watershed moment. It details a pivotal point in the lives of the Israelites and in their relationship with God. They stood on the brink of the Promised Land, after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness – their punishment for having doubted God and having listened to the negative report of the spies (Numbers 14:26-31). They were poised to enter the land of promise after years of wandering and waiting. God had just ordained a blessing on their behalf out of the mouth of Balaam, who had been hired to curse them Numbers 24). And while all this was happening, the people were busy aligning themselves with the daughters of Moab. The Expositors Bible Commentary has this to say about this important point in time:

The issue is that of apostasy from the Lord by participation in the debased, sexually centered Canaanite religious rites of Baal worship—that which would become the bane of Israel’s experience in the land. This chapter is an end and a beginning. It marks the end of the first generation; it also points to the beginning of a whole new series of wicked acts that will finally lead to Israel’s punishment…

The whole scene is reminiscent of what happened when the Law was given to Moses on Mount Sinai. While God was blessing them with the giving of the Law, the people were busy creating a golden calf that they could worship. In other words, they were turning away from God and choosing to replace Him with a god of their own making.

And Numbers 25 reveals the people of Israel doing the same thing all over again. Verse two makes it clear that this was not just about sex, it was about religion.

It started when the women invited the men to their sex-and-religion worship. They ate together and then worshiped their gods. – Numbers 25:2 NLT

Rather than remain set apart as God had commanded, the people were intimately joining themselves with the people of the land. They were violating the commands of God in order to enjoy the sensual and sexual pleasures all around them. And it’s likely that the people justified their actions.

We’re just trying to fit in!,” some probably said. “We’re just being ecumenical!,” others claimed. “We don’t want to be judgmental,” a few might have suggested. Rationalization reigned and the people brought dishonor to the name of God. So God brought a plague on them. He ordered the execution of all those who led this rebellion against His authority. But this thing was so out of hand that one of the Israelites had the audacity to bring one of the Midianite women into camp, right in front of Moses and the people as they wept in front of the tabernacle. He took her straight into his tent. No shame. No remorse. He was totally controlled by his sensual desires.

But one man took action. His name was Phinehas. With spear in hand, Phinehas followed the man into his tent and executed him and his Midianite accomplice. His actions halted the plague that God had sent on the people. And God acknowledges that it was the actions of this one man that spared the lives of the people of Israel. “Phinehas son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron the priest has turned my anger away from the Israelites by displaying passionate zeal among them on my behalf. So I have stopped destroying all Israel as I had intended to do in my anger” (Numbers 25:11 NLT). Phinehas was motivated by a passionate zeal for God. He was not going to let the name of God get dragged through the mud. The literal translation is “he was zealous with my zeal.”

The emphasis on zeal is meant to stress his passion. The word “zeal” means a “passionate intensity to protect or preserve divine or social institutions.” Phinehas didn’t just stand by and watch. He acted. He couldn’t contain himself. And the Israelites are fortunate he couldn’t contain himself. Because it was his quick response that saved their lives. And that one man’s actions made a dramatic difference in the lives of the Israelites.

That sets up the events of chapter 26. After the plague eliminated 24,000 of the Israelites, God ordered Moses to take a census of the people.

“From the whole community of Israel, record the names of all the warriors by their families. List all the men twenty years old or older who are able to go to war.” – Numbers 26:2 NLT

God was preparing them to cross the border and begin their conquest of the land of Canaan. But he wanted them to know just how many warriors they had to work with. So, Moses and Eleazar canvassed each tribe in order to determine the size of Israel’s fighting force and the number came to 601,730 men. And it would appear that, because of the plague, that number was far less than it had been. It’s impossible to know if all 24,000 who died as a result of the plague had been males older than 20 years of age. But it seems likely that a good portion of the deceased would have been eligible for combat.

Yet, despite the disobedience of the people and the devastating results of the plague, God was providing Moses and Eleazar with the assurance they needed to move forward. If God could conquer the enemy of apostasy with the help of one man, He could certainly deliver the land of Canaan into the hands of the Israelites with more than 600,000 men.

But as will become clear, there was more to this census than determining the size of Israel’s army. These numbers would be used to determine the land allotment once the people entered Canaan. God had increased the number of Israelites dramatically since the day more than 400 years earlier when Jacob and his 70 family members had fled to Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan. God had kept His promise to Abraham and had created a great nation from his son, Isaac. Now, that nation stood poised and prepared to take possession of their inheritance. More than 600,000 strong, they were a formidable force and, with God’s help, they would conquer and dispossess all those godless nations that had taken up residence in the land of promise. But like Phinehas, they would need to display a zeal for the Lord and a willingness to obey His commands. If they did, nothing would be impossible for them.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.